HelpBerkeley, a volunteer-run grassroots organization, has been working through the pandemic to provide low-cost and free meals to seniors and at-risk citizens.
To support people who are immunocompromised and individuals over the age of 60 impacted by the pandemic, HelpBerkeley partnered with local restaurants to collect, process and deliver two meals per person for $10 primarily across Berkeley, according to HelpBerkeley CEO Michel Thouati. This holiday season, it aims to help combat food insecurity by delivering meals free of charge.
“We were focused on growing super fast without having to raise money,” Thouati said. “By doing everything with volunteers, we eventually figured out how we could bring the cost of meals down as low as possible and deliver them to people for free.”
Beginning with 10-12 people from various professional backgrounds, the organization has since expanded to about 400 volunteers, with about 150 working at any given time, according to Thouati. The organization has delivered about 25,000 meals since its founding in March, Thouati added.
Over Thanksgiving, the organization gave people who could afford the $10 meals an opportunity to make a donation that could cover the cost of someone else’s meal. This expanded access to food among people who cannot afford it, Thouati said.
As the program was successful, HelpBerkeley is implementing a similar system Dec. 23. Free food will be delivered to those who sign up on its website by Dec. 17, according to Josie Kanu, HelpBerkeley’s Customer Care Support Lead.
Kanu added that this effort is “a big run” for the organization, with many moving parts, including hundreds of drivers and additional customer support volunteers working to ensure everything runs smoothly.
Thouati said it has been incredible to see people from an amalgam of backgrounds and religions come together to volunteer for this upcoming distribution despite Christmas being a Christian holiday.
“It’s very cheerful to me that we can prove in Berkeley how we can get together and look past episodes and horrendous acts of violence and intolerance everywhere in the world and show that it’s possible to actually have faith — or lack of it — unify us in the face of the pandemic,” Thouati said.
In terms of how the organization will continue to grow, Thouati said he does not have all the answers but noted the organization will be here as long as COVID-19 continues to spread.
Thouati recognized that although HelpBerkeley will not be able to solve all food insecurity in the East Bay, he hopes its efforts will help address some of the struggles people are facing.
“Sadly enough, it doesn’t look like the pandemic is going anywhere anytime soon,” Kanu said. “I’m grateful that people have a chance to have this service at their fingertips where they don’t have to worry about food being a major aspect of the problem.”